Marriage Babylonian Style

by Esteban

” Of special interest are the laws which relate to the position of women. In this connection reference may first be made to the marriage-by-auction custom, which Herodotus described as follows:

“Once a year in each village the maidens of age to marry were collected all together into one place, while the men stood round them in a circle. Then a herald called up the damsels one by one, and offered them for sale. He began with the most beautiful. When she was sold for no small sum of money, he offered for sale the one who came next to her in beauty. All of them were sold to be wives.

The richest of the Babylonians who wished to wed bid against each other for the loveliest maidens, while the humbler wife-seekers, who were indifferent about beauty, took the more homely damsels with marriage portions.

For the custom was that when the herald had gone through the whole number of the beautiful damsels, he should then call up the ugliest–a cripple, if there chanced to be one–and offer her to the men, asking who would agree to take her with the smallest marriage portion. And the man who offered to take the smallest sum had her assigned to him.

The marriage portions were furnished by the money paid for the beautiful damsels, and thus the fairer maidens portioned out the uglier. No one was allowed to give his daughter in marriage to the man of his choice, nor might anyone carry away the damsel whom he had purchased without finding bail really and truly to make her his wife; if, however, it turned out that they did not agree, the money might be paid back. All who liked might come, even from distant villages, and bid for the women.”

This custom is mentioned by other writers, but it is impossible to ascertain at what period it became prevalent in Babylonia and by whom it was introduced. Herodotus understood that it obtained also in “the Illyrian tribe of the Eneti,” which was reputed to have entered Italy with Antenor after the fall of Troy, and has been identified with the Venetians of later times. But the ethnic clue thus afforded is exceedingly vague.

There is no direct reference to the custom in the Hammurabi Code, which reveals a curious blending of the principles of “Father right” and “Mother right.” A girl was subject to her father’s will; he could dispose of her as he thought best, and she always remained a member of his family; after marriage she was known as the daughter of so and so rather than the wife of so and so. But marriage brought her freedom and the rights of citizenship. The power vested in her father was never transferred to her husband.

A father had the right to select a suitable spouse for his daughter, and she could not marry without his consent. That this law did not prevent “love matches” is made evident by the fact that provision was made in the Code for the marriage of a free woman with a male slave, part of whose estate in the event of his wife’s death could be claimed by his master.

When a betrothal was arranged, the father fixed the “bride price,” which was paid over before the contract could be concluded, and he also provided a dowry. The amount of the “bride price” might, however, be refunded to the young couple to give them a start in life.

If, during the interval between betrothal and marriage, the man “looked upon another woman,” and said to his father-in-law, “I will not marry your daughter,” he forfeited the “bride price” for breach of promise of marriage.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.